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Viriconium Paperback – Deckle Edge, October 25, 2005
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Viriconium gathers Harrison's stories about the great city Viriconium, the empire that rose after the fall of the Afternoon Cultures, and the struggles that surround them, their art and legends, and their connection to our world. The collection starts with "The Pastel City," in which two queens, Methvet Nian and Canna Moidart, battle for control of the empire; Lord tegeus-Cromis and the last survivors of his order fight for Methvet Nian against the rapacious Northerners and the terrifying geteit chemosit, remnants of the late Afternoon Empires. In "A Storm of Wings," the great airman Benedict Paucemanly returns from the moon, bearing with him an invasion of locustlike creatures who come from the stars and threaten to destroy the human world. The final story connects Viriconium to our world through mirrors and strange stories of those who traveled into great Viriconium and returned forever changed. Harrison creates an epic history of a captivating and strange metropolis full of bravos and dancers, intrigue and romance. Regina Schroeder
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
"The world that Harrison depicts is intricate and authentic, peopled with a multitude of strange yet lifelike characters—a combination which serves to make his richly imagined empire of Viriconium feel very real indeed.... This omnibus collection from the author of Light is canon-reading for those who wish to know the genre's roots, as well as the heights, to which it can aspire."—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
Top Customer Reviews
The first, The Pastel City, can be taken as an extraordinarily well-wrought specimen of that class of bittersweet science-fiction tales about what Harrison here calls "the Evening Cultures" of humankind--those that come late in the history of the world and the race, when both are old, confused, tired . . . The bitter derives from the pervasive atmosphere in such tales of ending, of the morning and afternoon of life as but memories, of the same rue and futility as those of the old who feel their lives underlived yet slipping away as they watch; the sweet comes from the fact of actual living, of the reality of those human lives whose owners' appetites and deeds participate meagerly if at all in the race's larger melancholy. In this first venture at Viriconium, Harrison gives us an adequate but not striking plot and a well-wrought but not unique setting; but he also gives us rich characterizations and, above all, superb, jewel-perfect prose. He captures elegantly the late-autumn mood of the world he imagines. His protagonists do the needful things, some surprises occur, the book comes to an end; this one comes to what might be called a conventional, almost a traditional "happy" ending, in that, for all the pain and losses, those who survive have hopes, and futures that may contain those hopes.
By the second book--though it seems to proceed directly from the first, saving only a lapse of some decades--we have already a different form of book, one grown geometrically in many ways. The Pastel City, though almost poetic in tone, seems grounded in a readily discernible reality. In A Storm of Wings, we retain a connection to that particular far-future science-fictional reality, but an aura of surrealism has set in; as one character insightfully relates, "the actual thin substance of the universe becomes more and more debatable, oneiric, hard to achieve, like the white figures that will not focus at the edge of vision . . ." This Viriconium is well along the way to being what it will become in the later books.
It is different in many ways. It is still the shell of the seat of a once-great empire of the Afternoon Cultures, but it has ceased to be some Flash-Gordon art-deco abstraction; it has gone from particularity to specificity, from a city to City, a curious amalgam of all the cities of humankind. It is a mythic Jerusalem, or Rome: The Eternal City. Its anchors to a definite place and time, clear enough in the first book, have stretched and weakened and curved. Now it is not really in any definite place in reality. Its problems have changed in like kind. The dangers of The Pastel City were tangible, comprehensible, things against which one takes arms. Now, the shadow descending on Viriconium is not a thing of any sort, it is an attitude, a feeling, a sensation--intangible, indefinite, yet terribly real.
The tone, the atmosphere, is the stuffy, oppressive feeling that comes of a summer night when a thunderstorm is due and overdue, and the drenching downpour and thunder and lightning would be better than the miserable humid waiting. Perhaps the worst of it is that the danger is not external, outside and threatening to break in: it walks the streets of the City as the very citizens thereof. It is the Time of the Locust--and sanity itself is slowly and insidiously rotting away. Against this barely perceived threat, some few of the City must act, and they do. This--unlike The Pastel City--is not a tale in which much "happens" in the sense of dramatic action, despite the occasional clashes of swords (and the rare energy weapons). It is a tale of mind--of experiences, of perceptions, thoughts, philosophies; it is claustrophobia-inducing, grim, nihilistic. It is the next step in Harrison's evolution of Viriconium the concept.
It is a rich book. Harrison now truly flexes his powers of prose-making; the book is well worth reading sheerly for the pleasures of the writing. But the book is not just an ecstasy of prose poetry. It has plot, plot far more subtle, complex, and original than the acceptable but pedestrian plot of the first book. Moreover, Harrison's portrayal of both setting and character, already impressive in that first book, here--like his prose--comes to a yet fuller flowering. And, needless to say, the book is also one of ideas--ideas that we, the readers, need to color in with our own experiences and understandings of life, for Harrison does not hand us thoughts, but rather provokes thought.
In the end, there are revelations sufficient to transform the events of the book into a sequence to which one can assign tangible enough "explanations" that the reader who insists on missing the thrust of the tale and instead asking "But what was really happening?" can be satisfied; but this is the last time in the sequence that Harrison will so pander. The "reality" of the events in the tales, like their meaning, will henceforth be indeterminate, things for their readers to color in as may accord with their tastes and sensibilities.
The sequence of change and growth in scope and power in the series proceeds geometrically. As A Storm of Wings was to The Pastel City, so The Floating Gods is to Storm. The Floating Gods is the story of Ashlyme the poet, if the confused and erratic events described can be called a "story." (Mind, they are confused and erratic by careful design, not by any failing, and in that they of course mimic life and the poor wretches who live it.) The Viriconium of The Floating Gods has no longer even the faint connection of its series predecessors to any time or place recognizable to us. The titular floating gods are a mystery, the place is become a curiously melted-down-and-run-together puddle of all cities and all times; the folk who populate the City are weak, ineffectual, like children playing at adult life without knowing the rules.
All in all, by atmosphere, parallels, significances, allusions, and even a direct reference, we now cannot escape the sense of a close relation between this book at least--and most likely the very idea of Viriconium--and the poetry of T. S. Eliot, notably "The Hollow Men", which, not inappropriately for consideration of Viriconium the idea, famously concludes--
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
Possibly even more germane is Eliot's masterpiece The Waste Land. Viriconium: Viriconium, of the Evening Cultures . . . . What can these hollow people make of their dry, dusty lives? That is what Harrison asks, and answers. But what his answer may be requires us, his readers, to color in his sketch for it to be complete. Harrison is not a facile moralist with mind-numbing homilies to offer; he offers life in raw, sometimes bleeding chunks, and you and I must digest it as we can.
Although the "Viriconium" series is usually called "science fiction," that label clearly derives from the first two books. No one reading The Floating Gods can mistake it for anything but fantasy (a curious and perhaps unique mid-series transformation). Not that it matters: the point of speculative fiction--once called fantastic fiction--is to allow the author to throw light on the human condition in ways not easily accomplished in mainstream fiction.
As Eliot's Waste Land drew its inspiration directly from Jesse Weston's interpretations of Arthurian legend, so in turn does The Floating Gods depend, in at least one crucial way, on an aspect of the Arthur cycle, the episode of the Fisher King (a source of inspiration to many fantasy writers, such as C. S. Lewis). To say much more would be a spoiler, but Harrison has interpreted the crux of that business in a simple yet profoundly insightful way that turns the entire tale, seemingly desultory till that revelation, near the end, into a tightly wound spring that then explosively powers its significance into the reader's consciousness.
With the short stories that make up Viriconium Nights, Harrison takes us yet further into that curiously distorted and distorting version of the place that he described in the prefatory note to the previous volume; he repeats that note in this book, with small but perhaps significant changes.
In these tales we see Viriconium as never the same place twice, even the name of the place changing, the very streets shifting from story to story, only a whisper of continuity--place names which seem familiar; characters we seem to have heard of before; the imperfect repetition of this or that significant event. These tales are those imperfect repetitions, sometimes of one another, sometimes of events in the previous books of the cycle. (The longest of these tales, the title-giving "In Viriconium," is a condensed and strangely variant replay of virtually the whole of The Floating Gods.) The significances of the specific and the particular repetitions we must each glean for ourselves.
And that sums Harrison: we must glean, from his crystalline prose, such meanings as we each uniquely find.
Have you ever gotten something you yearned for -- an oft-delayed vacation, a new car or a fine, aged wine -- only to discover it doesn't live up to your longing? If so, you may understand my response to M. John Harrison's Viriconium. Consistently praised in the speculative-fiction community, it is a compendium spanning three novels and seven short stories, all of which center on a city of the same name. Sounds simple, yet describing what Viriconium is and what happens around, in and to it is challenging. That's because Harrison reinvents his creation from piece to piece.
In the first novel, The Pastel City, Viriconium is a far-future metropolis threatened by civil strife. As one of its last defenders, the warrior/poet tegeus-Cromis must lead a ragtag group of soldiers through the poisonous Metal-Salt Marsh to the Great Brown Waste, where hidden wonders of the lost Afternoon Cultures lie beneath rusted scrap that slowly sifts to silt. There he and his band must face the rebel Canna Moidart and the ancient threat she has unearthed -- fearsome automatons called the geteit chemosit. It reads like a blending of The Lord of the Rings and Dune. There are ferocious battles in blasted landscapes, miraculous technologies and a piercing poignancy over a civilization that might be the earth's last if things go wrong. It's great fun.
A Storm of Wings, the next in the cycle, is anything but. It has the right ingredients -- the return of old friends, peril from beyond the stars, and several desperate and doomed sorties. Yet a combination of muddled plotting and fever-dream description manages to muck up the proceedings. The swarms of intergalactic insects menacing Viriconium do so not through superior weaponry or numbers, but through a kind of Gnostic telepathy that reworks reality itself. Ludicrous word choices doom it even further. Examples? There are plenty. A procession marches "in a lunar chiaroscuro of gamboge and blue." During a mental crisis, a character watches "precarious flowers bloom in his secret heart." A foundering fleet lost in treacherous waters "turned quietly turtle in the gelid sea." Imagine one or more of these groaners per page. Now try to conjure up some excitement for what is the collection's longest section.
While the purplest of this prose gets excised in the remaining material, a new wrinkle appears -- the transition of Viriconium from a city rooted in space and time to myth. Harrison tries to achieve this by reintroducing previous characters and then fundamentally altering some part of them. Virtues and vices, biographical details, professional achievements, even hairstyles -- all get freely mixed and matched. The effort proves about as intelligible as the plots, which range from adequate ("The Lamia & Lord Cromis") to obscure ("The Dancer From the Dance") to well-nigh impenetrable ("The Luck in the Head"). As for In Viriconium, the last of the novels, Neil Gaiman writes in the introduction that the protagonist "barely understands the nature of the story he finds himself in." The same could likely be said for many who read it.
It is distasteful to so roundly criticize a work, especially one from as talented an author as Harrison. He is incredibly imaginative and interested in grand ideas. Those willing to commit multiple readings to Viriconium and struggle through the vexing vocabulary, screwy character switch-ups and bewildering shifts in action will likely be rewarded. If only Harrison hadn't given the rest of us such good excuses not to.